NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters. (Marta Jewson/The Lens) Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

The NOLA Public Schools district recently upgraded its public facing COVID-19 case tracker to include more comprehensive data, including a cumulative case count for the school year.  The change revealed an additional 140 cases of the virus since September.

The adjustment does not represent a sudden spike in cases among NOLA Public Schools students and staff. Those 140 additional cases were not all newly diagnosed. Instead, they appear to have been previously unreported over the course of the school year.

Prior to the upgrade, the district only provided data on “active” cases — those diagnosed over the prior two weeks — in its weekly reports. The Lens kept a running tally of newly reported cases in those reports. The 140 previously unknown cases this school year increase that total by 23 percent.

Approaching the 11-month mark, the pandemic has thrown schools for a whirlwind, shuttering campuses in March and dividing parents and educators about the safety of returning to the classroom. Many students have remained at home for virtual education this year while thousands returned to the classroom in September and October, only shuttering for three weeks after a spike following winter holidays. 

The Lens was previously aware of 476 cases tied to staff and students, issued in weekly email reports, excluding holidays, beginning Sept. 21. The upgraded district dashboard now shows 592 known cases in staff and students since it began reporting Sept. 21 through the dashboard’s most recent cumulative data, which runs through Feb. 1. The district reported an additional 24 new cases on Monday, according to a spokesman, for a total of 616. 

That difference is likely largely due to gaps in reporting, over winter break for example, but a spokeswoman for the district said the newly revealed cases could also be the result of delayed case reports from schools. Schools self-report their cases to the district and Louisiana Department of Health. 

“As groups self-report sometimes the numbers reflect different reports that come in at different times,” spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said.

The changes to the reporting system came after a request from several Orleans Parish School Board members in January. Community members and parents had also called for more data. 

Wanda Richard, president of teachers union United Teachers of New Orleans, said in a statement that she was glad to see more publicly available information. The union — which has not had a districtwide collective bargaining agreement since Hurricane Katrina struck the city and accelerated the transition to charter schools — has expressed concerns about teacher safety during the pandemic. 

“We are encouraged to see that school board members are pushing for more transparency so that schools, teachers, and families can make the right decision for their health,” Richard said.

The district’s site now shows it reported 103 cases on Jan. 4, the first day back from winter break and a day when it did not provide a public report of cases. That same day, when at least one charter school decided to remain closed to in-person classes due to increasing case counts in the city, the district announced it would shutter schools for at least two weeks due to rising cases in the city. Elementary and middle school students were allowed to return last week. High school students are expected to return to classrooms beginning Feb. 22, after Mardi Gras.

Most city schools are closing Thursday or Friday for a week-long Mardi Gras holiday break. Though the district hasn’t shifted operations in response to the more contagious UK variant of COVID-19 — which has been confirmed on Tulane University’s campus — district officials say they are watching and in constant communication with the city and state health departments. 

District officials maintain that outbreaks have not been tied to schools, but reflect spread within the community. 

“We’re trying to give our community a snapshot in time with our tracker,” Alfonzo said. “The main thrust is that there is no spread in schools.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...